Blog - Real-e-fun: tales from a non-religious funeral celebrant

Monday, August 30, 2004. The Gender Agenda?

A little boy, Jack, aged four, is sitting on the lap of his newly widowed mother Amy. She’s holding him more for her own comfort than his. Amy’s mother is there too, on the sofa with them. I’m in the armchair, helping them to plan the funeral for their father, husband and son-in-law Dave who died in a car crash a few days ago.

Jack knows Amy and her mother are sad, and that at times it’s hard for them to speak to me, to answer my questions about Dave. He is eager to help.

‘Dave so loved his car,’ said Amy. ‘It was a red BMW sports car, a convertible.’

‘That means you could take the roof down,’ said Jack.

‘That’s right, Jack,’ said Amy. ‘He spent hours washing and polishing it every weekend, didn’t he?’

‘Yes, and I helped him too.’

‘That’s right,’ said Amy again. ‘So perhaps, in a way, it was fitting that he…’

She wasn’t ready to say the words yet, and she broke down and cried. So did her mother. Jack put one arm around his mother’s bent neck and took over.

‘You see,’ he told me solemnly, ‘we’re very sad because Daddy’s car is all smashed up now.’

Monday, August 02, 2004: A Grave Occasion

I’m not keen on doing burials, partly because I’m a bit claustrophobic and definitely want to be cremated myself, and partly because it always rains whenever I do a burial. But there’s one aspect of it that I do like.

The traditional sign-off for mourners at a burial is to toss a handful of earth into the grave, but earth – especially the clay soil round here – is nasty wet stuff that sticks to people’s hands, and in most cases it’s not particularly meaningful. When I’m working with families, I suggest that they try to think of something a bit more personal to cast into the grave with their goodbyes: maybe clippings from the garden of a keen gardener, or breadcrumbs for someone who was a baker by trade, that kind of thing.

John’s family knew he wanted to be buried. He was in his late 40s, single and childless, and had died suddenly from a heart attack. His parents were stoical – ‘these things happen’ – and seemed to find comfort in doing the practical tasks needed to arrange the funeral. When I made my suggestion about something personal to cast into the grave, they knew immediately what would be right for John.

‘Videos. It has to be videos. He loved his videos, he would watch two, three every night. Especially those Police Academy ones, he’d watch those over and over again.’

‘But we can’t go chucking videos in, can we, Zinnia? Surely they won’t allow that.’

‘Video tape, then. I can pull some out of his favourite ones, cut it into strips. That would be OK, wouldn’t it?’

I said I thought so, and promised to check with Paul the funeral director, who spoke to the crematorium staff and came back with an affirmative.

So on the day I took my carved wooden bowl, and outside the crematorium, before the service, John’s father gave me an old brown envelope full of pieces of video tape. Sure enough, it was raining. I tucked the envelope in my briefcase and went into the chilly chapel to do the service.

After the service I got a lift up to the grave with Paul in the hearse, which gave me time to transfer the pieces of video tape from the envelope to the bowl. For a wonder, the rain had stopped, but it was a blustery autumn day with looming grey clouds so I didn’t think it would hold off for long.

‘You’d better put something over that bowl, Zin,’ said Paul, ‘or you’re going to lose all those before you get to the end of the committal.’

I looked at the trees bending in the breeze and decided he was right. My folder, with the script in, did the job perfectly.

It was a small crowd, just 30 or so, and they fitted neatly round the grave. I explained how the committal would be done: I would read his parents’ choice of poem, Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep, then the coffin would be lowered, then anyone who wished could cast in some pieces of video tape as they said their own goodbye to John. There were smiles at this. And it went according to plan, until I took the folder off the bowl and people began taking handfuls to throw into the grave. The wind picked them up and took them all across the cemetery, dancing in the gusts, stopping on gravestones, cartwheeling across the grass. People tried to bend low, to make sure their pieces would go into the grave – but it made no difference, the wind seemed to swoop down and take them away again. Everyone tried to retain the solemnity of the occasion, but a little girl giggled, then her mother chuckled back; one man spluttered, another guffawed, and then we were all off, whooping and gasping and clutching one another for support. Paul and his staff tried hard to retain their professional lugubrious expressions, but even they ended up smiling and twinkling, and coughing into their handkerchiefs to avoid a full-blown laugh.

When it was over, John’s parents came to thank me.

‘That was the best funeral I’ve ever been to,’ said John’s father, still wiping tears of laughter from his eyes.

‘John would have loved it,’ said his mother. ‘There’s no chance of anyone standing at his grave and weeping!’